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The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam




Michel, Marshall L., III

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During the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force had performed inconsistently and after the war was faced with a number of challenges. Many of the Air Force senior leadership felt that the challenges could be resolved by the use of high technology weapons systems, especially the advanced McDonnell-Douglas F-15 “Eagle.” At the same time, many young fighter pilots who were veterans of the most difficult air combat over the Hanoi area of North Vietnam felt that the Air Force needed a complete culture change and a new emphasis on realistic training. The frustration of these young officers, the “iron majors,” with the Air Force culture is described, and well at their push for new training methods. After the 1973 Middle East War General Robert Dixon, commander of the Air Force’s Tactical Air Command (TAC), encouraged a complete reevaluation of TAC’s training. The “iron majors” soon developed a very realistic exercise called Red Flag that was quickly expanded to the rest of the American military. At the same time, under budgetary pressures the Air Force decided to buy a small, high performance fighter-bomber, the F-16, to supplement its F-15s . In 1978, the new commander of TAC, General Wilbur Creech, began to push for very expensive, high technology weapons as well as continuing the emphasis on realistic training. These weapons were intended to give the Air Force a long range, all weather strike capability. But the new weapons were expensive and, since the Air Force chose to buy systems instead of spare parts because of limited budgets, the new systems were often grounded. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Air Force was pressured a group of Critics who claimed the Air Force was poorly led and pressed to eliminate high-technology weapons. These arguments, as well as how the Air Force successfully resisted them, are described, as well as the Gulf War success of the high-tech weapons manned by crews trained at Red Flag. Today the arguments against high-tech weapons still rage, but as long as American military operations are successful, it seems the commitment to high tech weapons and, more important, realistic training will continue.